From baking tips to Pakistani art to hijra, a feast of writing and performance awaits

Bake off champion Nadiya Hussain, who made the Queen's 90th birthday cake, is the star opening the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

Bake off champion Nadiya Hussain, who won The Great British Bake Off in 2015 and who recently made the Queen's 90th birthday cake, is the star opening the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

From baking tips to Pakistani art to hijra, a feast of writing and performance awaits

29 April 2016

By Naomi Canton

Bake off champion Nadiya Hussain who journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown once wrote “has done more for race relations than any posturing politician” is the star who will be opening the 10th edition of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival on Wednesday 4 May.

The first-generation Bangladeshi Muslim, who was born and raised in Luton, shot to fame after winning The Great British Bake Off TV contest in 2015. She is now a columnist, TV presenter and has even signed up with a publisher to launch her first cookbook Nadiya’s Kitchen, which is set for release in June.

She was also trending on Twitter after baking  the Queen’s fabulous 90th birthday cake. Next she will host her own BBC One TV cookery show titled The Chronicles of Nadiya in which she will travel to Bangladesh to trace her culinary roots and explore how food has changed in her homeland. It will be her first return to Bangladesh since she got married.

It is widely thought that her appearance on the ITV show and her ensuing popularity has contributed greatly towards improving race relations in the UK, shifting stereotypes about Muslims and increasing acceptance of cultural diversity.

Hussain will be in conversation with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author of among other books Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation, also a columnist for The Independent, at Asia House. There will be delicious cakes to sample at the Opening Night too – courtesy of Patisserie Valerie.

“There were not any big book launches in Asia this year in the spring and we were looking for a headline act,” Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld explained.

“Last year we had Xinran and the year before that Hanif Kureishi. So instead this year we chose a superstar from the Asian community who could talk about literature. Nadiya came to mind as she is very topical now baking the Queen’s birthday cake and she has a book coming out this year. When I was googling her I read an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown about her and I had a penny drop moment that I could have them both on stage as whilst she is not yet an author, Yasmin is and she will be soon. The idea was that Yasmin could interview Nadiya about certain things framed around literature,” Steinfeld  said.

23 April 2016 marked 400 years since English playwright William Shakespeare died aged 52.  One of the pre-Festivals event in April has been a special series of three days at Asia House devoted to exploring how Shakespeare is viewed and interpreted in India titled ‘Indian Shakespeares on Screen’.

The BFI has been holding an  event titled ‘BFI Presents Shakespeare on Film’ exploring how filmmakers have adapted, been inspired by and interpreted Shakespeare’s work for the big screen and Asia House has focused on the response to the Bard in India with a series of popular talks and film screenings.

“We have been looking at how Shakespeare has affected writers in India and how his works have been interpreted and adapted on screen there,” Steinfeld said.

Steinfeld said she was keen to participate in the project for various reasons, one of which was that the front image of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival printed programme has lots of recognisable buildings coming out of a pop-up book that includes a picture of Shakespeare’s Globe.

“They approached me saying they wanted to hold this conference at Asia House and it made sense for us to do it as Asia House is about building relationships between the UK and Asia and so looking at the impact Shakespeare had in India made sense as a great event for our warm-up before the literature festival begins,” Steinfeld said.

The other pre-Festival events in April were focused on Georgia this year. They took place as part of a ‘Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25’ cultural feast happening across London, presented by the Georgian National Book Centre.

“We wanted to cover a fascinating country that is located between the East and West. It has huge historical connections with the USSR and post USSR period but it’s a country that people don’t always talk about,” Steinfeld explained.

In 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair is dedicating itself to Georgia. They have a rich literary culture in their country but not many people know about it externally.”

Steinfeld said the purpose of the pre and post literature festival events was to include authors who may be coming to the UK for Hay Festival or The London Book Fair who cannot appear during the key festival dates of 4 to 18 May.

Steinfeld said she curated the festival with “alternative voice in mind”. “I was thinking ‘who are the people that don’t have enough of a voice today’?  For example, LGBT writing has not really been covered that much at Asia House.  Yet this should be talked about and we are not doing that enough,” she said.

Indeed one of the many interesting topics to be discussed at the festival is about the lives of Hijra (transgender) people in South Asia. The event on 6 May will see Birmingham-born British poet Bobby Nayyar read from his collection of poems and British Asian poet and performer Shane Solanki put on a show including music, film clips, comedy and live performance telling a multi-layered story about hijras.  “Shane explores these themes often. He is interested in masculinity, gender, sexuality and identity,” she said.


British Asian poet and performer Shane Solanki will put on a show including music, film clips, comedy and live performance telling a multi-layered story about hijras on 6 May.

She said she wanted to look at LGBT in a way that was relateable to British audiences and there was more connection with hijiras here because of large South Asian community, than with say transgendered people in Thailand.

“Bobby also writes about lots of issues including gender and sex issues,” she added.

Another alternative voice that Steinfeld wanted to address was that of the drug dealers and drug takers in Myanmar. Economist correspondent Richard Cockett has written a book titled Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma and the event at Asia House on 6 May will focus on the chapter regarding the battle against drugs in the country.


“The Asia House audience is often pretty knowledgeable and I think they quite often want something that gives them a deeper understanding of what’s going on and when I read about just how big the drugs problem is in some of the provinces there I felt that was the topic we wanted to focus on. We want to talk about the topics that people shy away from,” she said.

Pakistani writers and artists who have written pieces in The Eye Still Seeks, edited by renowened Pakistani artist, curator and writer Salima Hashmi, which is being launched at the Festival, will take part in a panel discussion at the launch of the book on 5 May. They include Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie. British art historian, critic and curator Virginia Whiles and Pakistani artists Faiza Butt and Naiza Khan. “We wanted to do more than a book launch. We wanted to have a panel to discuss the themes in the book. Pakistani art is thriving and I was interested by the way these artists were challenging the dominant discourse and affecting change,” Steinfeld said.



The Festival also includes a Jungle Book event for children aged four to nine when the famous story will be re-enacted and children will make masks to coincide with the Disney 3D remake which has just been released at cinemas in the UK.

The same day there will be a talk on The Jungle Book’s original author Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the collection of stories which has inspired numerous films and books since. The talk will be delivered by Mary Hamer, author of Kipling & Trix – a fictionalised account of Rudyard Kipling’s complex relationship with his sister known as Trix. The duo were born in Bombay in British India and moved to the UK when Kipling was five.  “Mary approached me and highlighted The Jungle Book remake and since we were already doing something on The Jungle Book I was intrigued by it,” Steinfeld said.

There is also a creative writing masterclass on 17 May for aspiring novelists being delivered by US-based crime fiction writer Lisa Brackmann. “Lots of people in London want to write a novel but many don’t have time to sign up to a long course. There are not many short one-off courses like this,” Steinfeld said.

There are four book launches during the Festival: The Eye Still Seeks; The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History;  My Shanghai, 1942-46 and Samarkand: a culinary journey through Central Asia.

Steinfeld, who herself previously lived in China, is very excited about the critically acclaimed One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong.  “It’s a brilliant piece of investigative journalism,” she said.  “And a thread to understand contemporary China. This is the first time she is speaking about the book in the UK.” The book looks at the impact, often devastating, of China’s controversial one-child policy on China. The policy was relaxed in 2013 and changed to a two child policy in 2015. Fong will be discussing the book as one of our post-Literature Festival events , at Asia House on 31 May.



Another post-Festival event is a talk by Susan Southard on her book Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War (2015) which looks at the lives of five survivors of the atomic bomb attack from the city. This is also her first talk in the UK about the book. “The focus is usually on Hiroshima,” Steinfeld said. “This looks at survivors of Nagasaki known as hibakusha and how their lives are affected today.”



Another highlight of this year’s Festival is the launch of Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, the final volume of his prize-winning and highly acclaimed The People’s Trilogy. In 2011 his book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe , 1958-62 won The Samuel Johnson Prize. The release of the book has been timed to coincide with the 50 year anniversary of The Cultural Revolution’s commencement in May 1966.

“He is a very well-respected historian and he takes a different look at The Cultural Revolution. He tries to re-understand it and move away from the typical narrative you are told by China and the West,” Steinfeld added.

Another exciting event is a panel discussing the change in the state of mind in Hong Kong, which takes place not at Asia House, but at China Exchange in Chinatown on 9 May.  The panel will comprise bestselling writer and historian Julia Lovell, managing editor of Asia Literary Review Phillip Kim, and Xu Guoqi, a professor at Hong Kong University originally from Mainland China. They will compare the protests of Hong Kong of 1967 to the recent ones of 2014 and share different perspectives.

“In 1967 after the Cultural Revolution had started in China some people in Hong Kong looked to China and wanted to be part of this Revolution. Fast forward to the recent protests where people were raising the British flag, saying they did not want to be part of Communist China. How can we understand these two moments?” Steinfeld asked.

The Festival will also host a panel of Korean authors together with a Korean translator on 10 May discussing not just the ‘Gangnam Style’ effect in Korea but also a darker side of the society which has seen a rise in cosmetic surgery and young suicides. “How do these different sides of society reconcile and can the writers shed a light on that?” Steinfeld asked.

There is also a panel on 11 May looking at women in Asia and whether traditions and customs about subjects such as marriage and being single, child brides and so on, are changing in countries such as India, Iran and Turkey. Ramita Navai, author of City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the search for truth in Tehran, Elif Shafak, author of Honour and The Forty Rules of Love and playwright Sharmila Chauhan of Born Again, The Husbands and 10 Women, will look at how universal lifestyle changes for women are and how these changes have impacted female rights and gender equality in various countries.

Asian food also features heavily in the Festival. Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, the duo who set up London restaurant Honey & Co., and who have written various modern Middle Eastern cuisine cookbooks, will speak about their journey from Israel to London and the dishes Arabs and Jews share together.

The closing night event is India-themed and will see emerging Kenya-born India-based author Mahesh Rao discuss his two acclaimed books followed by a spontaneous interpretation of his talk by an Indian dancer. This will be followed by Indian canapes and wine.  His first novel The Smoke is Rising is set in Mysore, India and the second one is a collection of short stories traversing 13 states in India offering glimpses into everyday life in a world torn between tradition and modernity. Rao studied at the University of Bristol, Cambridge and LSE. “He is an author to watch and a potential Man Booker prize winner in the future. He is a really engaging speaker and knows his subject matter,” Steinfeld said.

Mahesh Rao will speak about his two novels on the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

Mahesh Rao will speak about his two novels on the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.


So why such a focus on India this year?

“I just kept on getting really good Indian writers coming to me. I think with the 70th anniversary since Indian independence next year there will be even more of a focus on India in our programme in the future,” she said.

So what does she hope this year’s festival will achieve?

“I hope that everyone who comes to an event will leave feeling inspired,” Steinfeld said.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival takes place from 4 to 18 May. To see the full programme of events click here.